Health Mental Health Penn

Female Freshmen: Perceptions of Danger

How do you feel late at night on Locust Walk?

Do you feel like you’re in danger? Do you think your college campus is perfectly safe?

The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” [1] Many different actions fall under the category of sexual assault.

Women in college are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in general—23.1 percent experience assault during their college years, as well as 5.4 percent of men [2]. And scarily, according to a 2015 report, 20.8 percent of female undergraduate students (and 4.5 percent of male undergraduate students) at the University of Pennsylvania have experienced unwanted sexual touching [3]. This year welcomed a new freshman class to Penn—the Class of 2020. With these frightening statistics, it would be understandable for women to feel apprehension about this potential campus danger. However, perceptions of this underlying threat seem to be very mixed within the freshman class.

During NSO, I was able to meet a lot of fellow Class of 2020 women. In certain situations, I ended up talking to them about some very serious topics. One of these topics was sexual assault. My expectation was that everyone would be worried about the very real possibility of being harmed. However, to my disbelief, people’s sentiments were incredibly varied. Some women were, unsurprisingly, terrified of the realities of sexual assault. They told me that they will carry pepper spray at all times, will never walk outside alone at night, and that they will take all the precautions they know in order to avoid a dangerous situation. Others had a moderate level of cautiousness. They revealed to me that they plan to follow the common pieces of advice we are all told: pour your own drinks, don’t leave any food or drinks unattended, and so on.

“I’ve had some uncomfortable experiences in high school, so I guess that makes me extra worried. I’ve also heard horror stories of people climbing into girls’ rooms at night, and that freaked me out big-time,” said a freshman who wishes to be unnamed.

But what I found shocking were the other women. They showed no trepidation at all. In its place was a nonchalance that I myself cannot fathom feeling. These women seemed to firmly believe that nothing could ever or would ever happen to them. They had no plans to take measures to avoid unpleasant situations. I simply could not understand their complete lack of fear. It wasn’t just a couple women—there was a near equivalent number of women who were absolutely petrified and women who were unbothered by the statistics.

“I don’t really feel like I’m in danger because there’s always so many people around…I have never been sexually assaulted and have no experience with it, so I don’t really think about it,” said College student Jenny Liu.

I was determined to find out what causes these completely opposite perceptions of the danger on campus. How could these women, who are all on the same campus, view the underlying threat in it in such varying ways? There were no obvious differences or dividing features within these students apart from this. While there is a common perception that certain factors, such as socioeconomic status, affect how threatening people view a situation, this was not the case at all.

This leads to an important point. While vulnerability due to factors like poverty or disabilities can make people a susceptible target for sexual assault [4], and factors like gender economic inequality have been shown to increase the likelihood of rape [5], sexual assault is not a socioeconomic issue. It is not an age issue or a disability issue or a sexual orientation issue. In fact, sexual assault isn’t even a gender issue, as there has been a plethora of sexual assault cases where men have been victims. The act of sexual assault is not confined to a specific type of individual. It does not discriminate. Even if certain factors increase the rate of sexual assault for certain reasons, it does not mean that everyone else is not at risk. This only intensified my confusion.

I found studies leading to a couple of conclusions. Women in general fear rape greatly for a variety of reasons, more than most other crimes. [6] However, while many women are aware that sexual assault is a threat that women face, do not apply this reality to themselves. They disassociate themselves from this fact and simply do not view themselves as part of the larger group at risk. They don’t think they are as likely to be sexually assaulted as other women. [7] Furthermore, in most sexual assault cases on college campuses, the perpetrator is someone the victim is familiar with, at least as a vague acquaintance. However, women often fear sexual assault by strangers to a much higher degree than sexual assault by people they know. [7] Therefore, it makes sense that some students aren’t very fearful about being harmed in a college social setting. Even though three out of four cases of rape are committed by someone the victim knows [8], and one out of four women in college experience date rape or a date rape attempt in situations like a college party [9], it doesn’t strike many women that they can be in danger from someone they have met.

Based on this, the answer seems very simple. Most people are well aware that sexual assault is a serious issue. They know that the statistics are unsettling and the threat of rape is very real. However, they separate this piece of knowledge from their own lives. Sexual assault happens to other people, but not them. This is a natural tendency of humans, and makes what I thought was so shocking much less surprising.

The real answer is more complicated and cannot be definitively stated. Even with the research that has been done, we can’t assume a shared psychological root that is true for all women. Still, this revelation is quite disturbing. It seems that many women are unknowing, or, at least, do not seriously acknowledge the fact that perpetrators of sexual assault can target anyone, even them. And while these people, as well as all others, hopefully never come across such a disturbing situation, it is always a possibility.

If you want to learn more about staying safe on campus, click here.

Students who have experienced sexual assault have a variety of resources to help. You can contact Penn Police, Student Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Division of Public Safety Special Services Unit, or the Penn Women’s Center if you have been a victim of sexual assault.